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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hello in there. Hello


I get these kinds of calls all the time. Usually from the local Funeral Home.

So, when I got the phone call the other day that a "long time member" of my congregation had been transferred to a local hospice with a request that I visit, I was pleasantly surprised.

"Long time member"? Sure. Never mind that I haven't seen the name or the name of any member of the family on any membership or pledge list in the going-on eight years I've been at St. Paul's.

And my wardens wonder why I tell them not to get too excited about the numbers on the Parochial Report.

Actually, I was just glad to be able to make a 'live' connection with someone before the inevitable telephone call comes from the Funeral Director.

I had no idea what I was walking into. Probably a good thing.

I'll call her Jane. She's 92. Macular degeneration has stolen most of her eyesight. The only way she can really hear is if you put your face inches from her ear and YELL. REAL LOUD.

Oh, and she has what is called "Senile Dementia."

When I first laid eyes on her, she was taking a little post-prandial snooze in her wheel chair. Her lunch tray was on a cart just outside her tiny but tidy room. I was pleased that the place smelled so good.

Her head was bent onto her chest, her snow white hair rebelling against a random black bobby pin, resolutely refusing to behave or conform to any particular style. I should have seen it as a sign. Her large hands were folded on her chest, a mass of ancient knuckles and knots.

I touched her hand gently and then said, loudly, I thought, "Hello, Jane."

Nothing.

Moving closer I said, louder still, "HELLO, JANE!"

Still nothing.

I hated doing it, but I move right close to her ear and yelled, "HELLO JANE!"

That did it. She looked up and yelled, "YES. I SAID I'M DONE WITH MY LUNCH."

This was clearly not going to be easy.

I leaned in again, yelling in her ear, "HI, JANE. MY NAME IS ELIZABETH."

"WHO?" she yelled back.

"MY NAME IS ELIZABETH. I'M THE PRIEST FROM ST. PAUL'S, CHATHAM."

A moment of confusion was washed away from her face by a beautiful smile.

"ST. PAUL'S?" she said, "THAT'S MY CHURCH."

"I KNOW," I yelled, "THAT'S WHY I'M HERE. I'M THE PRIEST. MY NAME IS ELIZABETH."

"ST PAUL'S", she yelled. "GREAT CHURCH. WHAT DO YOU DO THERE?"

"I'M THE PRIEST."

She looked confused, so I offered, "I'M THE MINISTER."

"AHHHHH . . ." she said in understanding. "WELL, THAT'S NICE."

"DO YOU REMEMBER WALTER BELL?" I asked, thinking that this particular predecessor, who had also predeceased us both, might have been the one to have been her minister.

"WHO?"

"WAAAALLLTER BEEEEELLLLLL."

"UMMMMM . . . . I DON'T THINK SO. WHO ARE YOU?"

"I'M ELIZABETH. I'M FROM ST. PAUL'S."

"OH, YES. I REMEMBER YOU. She smiled politely at no one in particular.

Then she asked me, "DO YOU REMEMBER WALTER BELL?"

This was to become the pattern. I would ask her if she remembered something. She wouldn't. She'd later circle back to the issue and then ask me if I remembered - as if she knew the information all along and was checking in on my memory.

It was a delightful little game which seemed to restore her sense of control in the conversation. I was happy to play along as she seemed to enjoy our exchanges, such as they were.

"HOW OLD ARE YOU?" she asked.

"WELL," I said coyly, "A LADY NEVER REALLY REVEALS HER AGE."

She snorted a laugh, "YEAH, WELL, YOU'LL GET OVER THAT PRETTY QUICK."

"SO, HOW OLD ARE YOU? I CAN'T REALLY TELL BY LOOKING AT YOU."

"WELL," I said, "LET'S JUST SAY THAT I'M NOT 92."

"HA!" she snorted, "I'M A LOT YOUNGER THAN YOU!"

I wasn't sure if she heard me say that I was 92 or if she was just confused.

"HOW SO?" I asked, "HOW OLD ARE YOU?"

"I'M 56!" she giggled in absolute delight, adding, "NINETY-TWO! DID YOU SAY NINETY-TWO? BOY OH BOY! YOU ARE REEEALLLLY OLD! WELL, YOU LOOK PRETTY GOOD TO ME FOR SUCH AN OLD COOT! BUT THEN AGAIN, MY EYES DON'T WORK THEY WAY THEY SHOULD."

Some of the nurses and personal care attendants began to gather outside the room, delighted to hear her engage in conversation. Well, there was really no avoiding it. I think the folks three miles down the road could hear every word we spoke.

We . . . "chatted" . . . like this for about 20 minutes or so. Some parts were very sad. She didn't remember her daughter with whom she had lived for the past 10 years and who, up until 2 weeks ago, had tenderly and lovingly cared for her until it became time for her to be admitted to hospice care.

"AH, YOU KNOW. CHILDREN THESE DAYS. THEY DON'T CARE FOR THEIR ELDERS THE WAY WE USED TO CARE FOR OUR PARENTS AND GRANDPARENTS," she said sadly. "THEY JUST DUMP THEM INTO NURSING HOMES LIKE THIS AND LET THEM WASTE AWAY."

Nothing could have been farther from the truth. The nursing staff told me that her family visits her several times a week, bringing her favorite foods and flowers and cards - which were tacked on the wall behind her hospital bed.

She didn't recognize any of the grandchildren whose picture were lovingly displayed on the window sill by her bed. She didn't recognize pictures of herself at her birthday parties and surrounded by family at Christmas. At other times, she thought she was living at home with her parents.

"WHAT DID YOUR FATHER DO FOR A LIVING?" I asked.

She thought for a moment and then her face brightened with a memory, "HE COLLECTS STAMPS. STAMPS FROM ALLLLLL OVER THE WORLD. AND I HELP DADDY KEEP THEM IN A BOOK. YES, HE COLLECTS STAMPS AND I HELP HIM."

The memory clearly warmed her heart and her face actually blushed with pleasure. It was a delight to see her so happy in that wonderful moment of memory.

The nursing staff marveled at the way she was able to keep up her side of the conversation, such as it was. "She's really not engaged with anyone on the staff in the two weeks she's been here. She's got quite a great personality, hasn't she?" they marveled.

Indeed. Here are a few of the things she said. LOUDLY:

"AH, YOU KNOW, I CAN'T SEE VERY WELL, AND I CAN'T HEAR VERY WELL. BUT, AT LEAST I HAVE MEMORIES. WELL, WHEN I CAN REMEMBER THEM."

And:

"YOU KNOW, THEY SAY THAT A MIND IS A TERRIBLE THING TO WASTE. WELL, IT'S PRETTY TERRIBLE WHEN YOUR MIND GOES TO WASTE. IT'S AWFUL TO LOSE CONTROL OF YOUR MIND. ALTHOUGH, I MUST SAY, IT'S MUCH, MUCH WORSE TO LOSE CONTROL OF YOUR BOWELS AND BLADDER."

I giggled. She didn't. She was as serious as a heart attack.

The nurses were outside her room, falling all over themselves with laughter. Thank God she couldn't hear my giggles or their laughter.

And then a deep, bone-aching weariness seemed to overtake her. Our twenty-minute conversation-cum-yelling match had clearly exhausted her. She even looked a bit pale. I offered to have the nurses put her back to bed.

"ARE YOU KIDDING ME? NO, I DON'T WANT TO GO TO BED! I'VE GOT TO GET TO THE TRAIN STATION. DADDY WILL BE WAITING FOR ME."

"DADDY?" I asked.

"YES. HE COMES HOME ON THE 5:58 EVERY EVENING AND HE DOESN'T LIKE ME TO BE LATE."

"JANE," I yelled as tenderly as I could, "YOU DON'T HAVE TO PICK UP YOUR DADDY. YOU ARE IN A NURSING HOME NOW. REMEMBER? I'M ELIZABETH."

She looked at me, all ancient eyes wide with curiosity.

"FROM ST. PAUL'S, RIGHT? I REMEMBER."

"YES. I'M ELIZABETH FROM ST. PAUL'S IN CHATHAM."

"YES, I REMEMBER," she smile, "OF COURSE I REMEMBER. DO YOU REMEMBER . . . OH, WHAT WAS HIS NAME . . ."

"WALTER BELL?"

"YES! DO YOU REMEMBER WALTER BELL."

"NO, JANE. I'M AFRAID I DON"T"

"WELL," she said with great satisfaction, "I DO."

She asked me if I would come again tomorrow. I told her I would be back next week. No, she insisted, I had to come back tomorrow. I told her I would be back as soon as I could.

"GOOD," she said, "AND BRING YOUR PURSE. WE'LL GO INTO THE CITY FOR A DAY OF SHOPPING. I'LL EVEN BUY YOU LUNCH."

I offered to say a prayer with her before I left. "I'M GOING TO SAY THE LORD'S PRAYER. YOU CAN SAY IT WITH ME, IF YOU LIKE."

She kept up with every word. I don't know why, but I was amazed. And, humbled. I suddenly realized that the nursing staff who had gathered at the door way were holding hands and joining us in prayer.

As we continued, I was aware that there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Including mine.

You know, as often as I say that prayer in the course of my day, there are fewer times when I've said it with a greater sense of the presence of the Holy in our midst. There was no doubt in my mind that Jesus was there, hearing every word.

Of course, He could have been thousands of miles in outer space and still have heard us for all the yelling we were doing. No matter. Jesus hears the prayers of our hearts even before they get to our lips.

On my way home, I remembered that song Bette Middler did many years ago. "Hello in there. Hello." I found myself singing it softly to myself.

You know that old trees just grow stronger,
and old rivers grow wilder every day,
but old people, they just grow lonesome
waiting for someone to say,
"Hello in there. Hello"


I am rejoicing now, for "long time members" whose names don't appear on any membership or pledge list. Their names are written in the palm of God's hand.

All the deeds they have done for the church, or in the name of the church, are duly recorded, kept locked away, safe in the heart of Jesus.

All the hymns they have sung and all the devout prayers they have prayed have embedded themselves in the hard wood of the church and reverberate back to us in times of quiet meditation and prayer in that sanctuary.

I am blessed to know that I can at least look forward to a few more 20 minute visits with Jane, perhaps helping her to recover a few more memories that will bring a light to her hollow, empty eyes and a smile of delight to her ancient face.

And, when it comes time to commend her soul to God and send her home to Jesus, I'll be able to do so knowing that all the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven will rejoice that I know of what I speak.

If you click on the above link, it will take you to a YouTube video of the Divine Ms. M, performing "Hello in there. Hello." She begins with a little story about meeting an overweight woman in a blue housecoat, walking down 42nd Street, and, as a hat to protect her from the sun, a fried egg on her head.

Ms. Middler says, "You know, we all have fried eggs - some are on the outside and some are on the inside."

I'll let the Divine Ms. M have the last word.

So if you're walking down the street sometime
and you should spot some hollow ancient eyes,
don't you pass them by and stare
as if you didn't care.
Say, "Hello in there. Hello.

40 comments:

Fr Craig said...

thanks Elizabeth. these are moments I treasure in my ministry. It stuns me that so often otherwise 'dumb' old folks can say the Lord's prayer with me. My Mom, God rest her soul, was paralyzed from strokes, couldn't speak, write or communicate except with the anguish in her eyes. She'd get so frustrated that she would eventually end up weeping and saying, clear as day, 'Oh God! Oh God!'

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Yup. Like Ms. M says, some of us have friend eggs on the outside, and others on the inside.

Frair John said...

Like talking to my Granfather there at the end.

God bless ya Amma, this is some of what the church is about, taking each other seriously and taking time to care. I hope you get to visit her again, even if she dosen't remember.

And I'm gratified that you took the time to honor her dignity. I'm serious, I sometimes want to ... shake some of the people who visit from churches at my Grandmother's home.

Joie said...

Makes all those vestry meetings worth it, right?

Those are the moments for which I became a priest and which seem to come around so little in the task of running a parish. I have a man in one of my parishes who is in the late stages of alzheimer's but he can recite the Lord's Prayer with me and usually responds to communion with recognition --- story, song, symbol, and babies -- the inroads to dementia.

KJ said...

Thanks for sharing this, Elizabeth. Beautiful.

VTcrone said...

Thank you!

Namaste-M

Beryl Simkins said...

This is just a beautiful story. Your deep respect for people shows forth. I am sure you were a blessing to the lady, and to others in the nursing home who observed your visit. It is an example of the admonition, "What you do to the least of these, you do as unto me."

Kirkepiscatoid said...

It's very similar to a story my priest told me about a (recently deceased)parisioner with dementia. Did not know the proverbial "s#%t from shinola" but he knew what a clerical collar was, and when he would visit and bring him the sacraments, would recite prayers and creeds perfectly, sometimes even in 1928 BCP language.

It is always interesting to me what "comes out front" in people, not just with dementia, but people on morphine. A friend of mine, after her colon cancer resection, while under the influence of her morphine pump, would talk incessantly about two things--altar guild stuff and fretting over our priest's well-being. It was all about church, in other words. I found that kind of profound. However, I found her insistence that the liturgical color for Ash Wednesday should be pink, pretty hilarious! Guess you don't quite get everything exactly right on morphine!

suzanne said...

Thank you Elizabeth,
I miss those exhausting conversations with my Mother, and would give anything to do them all over again.

the snarkster said...

You should listen to the original version of "Hello In There" sometime. It was written and performed by John Prine on his first album "John Prine". If you have never heard it, you are in for a treat.

the snarkster

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Beautiful, Elizabeth!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Snarkster - you mean this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCDFpDPqSf8&feature=related

Thanks for stopping by and for introducing me to John Prine. I'm enjoying getting to know him.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for all of your kind remarks. I do believe that people are brought into our lives at exactly the moment we need them to be there, to teach us the lessons we would have never learned any other way.

it's margaret said...

Elizabeth, thank you for this. Someone (Yikes, I cannot remember who) shared this prayer with me, and so now I share it with you:

Dear God, help us hear the prayers they cannot pray; listen to the songs they cannot sing; comfort them with scripture they cannot read; encourage the faith they cannot express; cheer them by visitors they do not recognize; let them feel the love of the companion and children they can no longer call by name; give them your peace; do not forsake them in their desert of forgetfulness and dependency; abide with them until that glorious moment when you take them into your eternal presence where they will be restored and they can again sing your praises, walk again with diginity, talk again with clarity, and they will know all things even as they are known. Amen.

susankay said...

Yes -- it is all too easy for me to forget that there is ALWAYS a person every bit as real as I am looking out of everyone else's eyes.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Beautiful prayer, Margaret. Thank you so much. And yes, sussankay, we all need reminders.

Caminante said...

The Lord's Prayer sticks in there up to the end -- just three weeks ago, I went to the hospital to visit a long-time member (who had kept up until he was hospitalised), 95, who was in his last days. His sons said he was unresponsive so I laid hands on him and anointed him, and when I finished, his eyes popped open and he said, 'Thank you.' Then I asked if he would like to say the LP and he did, and he kept up with me. The sons, not really church-goers, were flabberghasted. Their father died two days later at 8.45, just as we were at communion at his usual service, the Rite I HE.

A wonderful telling and, oh yes, oh yes. BTDT.

Bless this woman. Bless you.

Suzer said...

During the last year of my grandmother's life, she was much like "Jane." During that time, my mother came into possession of my great-grandmother's diary (her mother's mother) of the family's summer time spent on a rather rustic camp on the Hudson in the early 1920's. The diary was not long, and encompassed several years. My grandmother would have been 10 years old or so at the time the diary was written.

My mother found it difficult to have much conversation with my grandmother at the time, so she would read Nana's diaries to Gram, and Gram was right there, hanging on every word! That part of her remained, and she remembered everything about those summers. It was a beautiful thing my mother could share with her, and one of the few things she could understand at age 97. Her memory was so clear of those old days. My mom read that diary over and over and over again, just to be able to have some connection.

Yes, she was still in there. I'm so glad you were able to find Jane where she was as well, even for fleeting moments. I'm quite certain that it gave her some joy in the midst of the fog that now surrounds her.

Fred Preuss said...

At last, you've found someone who's the right intellectual level for religion: a vegetable.
Shame that Sunny von Bulow's dead; you could've had a congregation.

JCF said...

Yes, for me the song is John Prine's, too.

This is one of those stories that tell me that parish ministry really isn't one of my charisms. ALS is a b*tch, but my mom kept her mind to the very end at least (praying my dad does, too). God bless you though, Lisbet, for the charisms you so evidently DO have.

Merciful Lord---who neither slumbers, sleeps, nor forgets---hold Jane close.

Malcolm+ said...

That's twice now you've made me cry remembbering my Nana. This has got to stop.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Fred! You're back, and nasty as ever, I see. That time spent away at Fred Phelp's church in Kansas has only sharpened your already razor-sharp mean edge.

In case anyone is wondering, I posted Fred's comment here just so you know how low the bottom is on the so-called 'orthodox right'. It's a new sea mark in the ocean of bitterness and guile on the 'right'.

alicia said...

Like another post said,
I miss those conversations with my father, and would give anything to do them all over again.

Ms Midler I see in a new light these days since she publicly came out against Gay Marriage on The Tonight show.

Bill said...

Your story made me think about my visits to the assisted living facilities in our parish. Then I remembered something I had written about five years ago. Quite a few of the geriatric patients are kept in the psychiatric ward in our hospitals. This was my observation back then.

The Gerrys

Faces framed by open doorways.
Always open, of harsh necessity.

Unmoving faces, propped up
In their geri-chairs,
Facing out - - Always.

But the eyes, Alive.
They move, they follow - All
In their limited world.
Framed by open doorways
Always open, of harsh necessity.


WHS 08/14/03 6 a.m.

The geri-chairs are special chairs for geriatric patients.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, dear, Alicia. I obviously have not kept up with 'pop culture'. And, what else would we expect from an unrepentant "fag hag". I had a conversation with a fairly notorious one who looked at me boldfaced and said, "I love being a fag hag. Look around. I'm in a room with all these gorgeous men and I'm the only woman."

I thought, "And, how very sad - to 'love' being in a room where the love is, and will always be, unrequited."

BTW, she had married a bisexual man with whom she had had a son. The son died of SIDS at 4 weeks of age. Her husband died of AIDS. And she is still a notorious fag hag who doesn't "believe" in gay marriage.

Right.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, and I meant to add - just because you don't "believe" in something, doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Jim said...

My late brother died much younger in the grips of serious mental disorder. But even towards the end when his delusions would lead him to suicide, he could lucidly explain to another patient in the psych ward the doctrine of real presence (Lutheran) and say the Lord's prayer. Early training matters a lot.

Prayers for "Jane" ascending. Receive her oh Lord, who places her trust in you.

FWIW
jimB

maryinbrazil said...

It's a beautiful story, and you tell it with beauty, humor, and flair.

I read it for the first time yesterday and then came back and read the comments. This is the first time I've been moved to respond to your blog, though I've been a long-time lurker.

What made me want to speak up is the assumption that only the ordained can do this kind of work. I'm one of those invisible middle-aged women that clergy are "kind" to, but nursing home visits such as the one you describe command a significant portion of my prayer life and spare time. I meditate very seriously on the dignity of the people I visit, having seen a few of them make the transition from active to housebound to forgotten by most of the parish. And I'm not the only one who does this.

People who are imprisoned in these circumstances call upon not only the Lord's Prayer, but also Psalms 23 and 91, and the Magnificat. Sometimes the Victorian hymns take on new depth because they are the one thing that a severely impaired person can still give voice to.
When you tell this story you are telling ours as well.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ola and Boa Vinda, MaryinBrazil. I suppose you could find an assuption that this is the work only for the ordained. I never said that, I don't think. Indeed, I never would. I have several trained Pastoral Visitors at the church, two of whom lead a service of Prayer with reserved sacrament in three local nursing homes. Their ministry is every bit as valid as mine. If I didn't believe that, I never would have started a Pastoral Visitor Program.

Fred Preuss said...

Don't flatter yourself-or your "pathetic nazarene ideology"; I have nothing to do with any religion. I have double the contempt you have for frauds and idiots like Falwell, Robertson and Sharpton and those who follow them.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, hello again, Fred. Still not over your time with the Phelps gang I see. You, like them, just hate the fact that Jesus loves us all - each and every one.

Even you, Fred. Even you.

David |Dah • veed| said...

I first heard Hello In There from a Joan Baez CD that I have, Diamonds & Rust. I looked high and low for it on the web, but alas it evades me. There is a YouTube video of a young Joan singing this with Kris Kristopherson, but it is not the same as off this album.

Since 2nd and 3rd world nations do not usually have "old folks homes" because we tend to still live in large extended families, perhaps we experience this less. My parents are into their mid 70s, (I am a late marriage accident, eight years younger than my closest sibling) but still command their positions as family and village leaders, as did their parents before them. I know that my Papá will die working our beloved fields and orchards with my uncles, brothers and cousins and they will bring his body to the house on a hay wagon, as they have all the others. His mind is sharp and he yet challenges my brother with the Masters in Agriculture, with but his high school education. My Mamá still manages her kitchen and her garden, as she has since my earliest memories. I think that because here in México we do not ever really retire, the elders are continually challenged mentally. I have a great aunt who cannot tell you what she did yesterday, but she can still run a mean kitchen and garden with her women kinfolk.

I see that Fred P has returned to correct you Mother Lizbet. He is an atheist troll who thinks God is our imaginary friend, and who has decided to spread vile racism and any manner of hate to the progressive Anglican blogs. He may try it on the Orthodite blogs, but I am sure their elves delete him quickly.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Yo, Fred! No I haven't published your last two posts. They are toxic waste.

You got something positive to contribute? Fine. No? Don't bother.

If you are an atheist - I mean, truly an atheist - why do you bother to hang around Christian web sites?

Have you considered is really not healthy for you? I mean, seriously not healthy.

So, no posts for you unless you got something to contribute to the conversation. If you persist, I will banish you to the outer darkness of my SPAM filter.

No joke. Got it, pal?

Lost in Texas said...

thanks Elizabeth,
that story reminds of visiting my grandma before she passed. Couldn't remember anything that happened the last 2 years, but ask her about being raised in a soddie in North Dakota and she could talk for hours. It sounds like a difficult but rewarding ministry. My mom volunteers at hospice, and now i get a glimmer as to why. thanks again.

IT said...

Dear Elizabeth

I hold no remit for the sad and sorry Fred-Troll whose bile doesn't belong anywhere,

but,

(a-hem)

*I'm* an atheist who hangs out on religious blogs.

IT

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, IT, honey, you know you bear the distinction of being "The Best Damn Atheist in All of Western Christendom."

Well, you do in my book, at least.

IT said...

Thank you, Elizabeth! Of course if I believed in God I would be an Episcopalian, but, well....

RE. the topic of your original post, BTW, first, you are a heckuva pastor. But we knew that.

Second, I'm not surprised that even as everything else goes in memory, the prayer does not. Sitting in Mass with my beloved of late, I find that despite giving up the practice of Catholicism over 30 years ago I can still basically "say" the creed by heart thanks to all those years in childhood attending Mass. Some memories become etched in granite, and even as the softer stones wear away with age, the granite remains till the end.

IT

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, IT. One of the more outrageous things Fred said before I deleted his comment was that the fact that folks can still repeat things like The Lord's Prayer is evidence of what he called "child abuse."

Carl Jung once said to an atheist, "You know, if I believed in the God of your belief, I'd be an atheist, too."

JimMollo said...

And like I said in Gigi's baptism sermon... her prayers are imbedded in the wooden rafters at St. Paul's. Hope you have many more meaningful visits with her.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Gee, Jim, wonder where you first heard that? ;~)